When Terence Conran died in September 2020 his former employee and friend Stephen Bayley wrote an obituary for the Guardian that was waspish but also fond and funny, properly acknowledging his erstwhile boss as a revolutionary in taste and design. To postwar British homes that were 50 shades of sad and brown, Conran brought a verve and colour, and persuaded people to think about objects – a wine glass, a sofa, a rug, a salad bowl – as something beautiful as well as useful. Britain was a better-looking place because of him. Later, he opened a series of restaurants that transformed London dining in the 1990s and became almost emblematic of fin-de-siècle prosperity.
That obituary expresses in about 3,000 words what Terence incontinently splurges over 300 pages. Bayley has a co-author in ad man Roger Mavity to supply a featherbed of reminiscences of his time as Conran’s CEO – he seems grateful merely to have breathed the same air as “Terence” – but it’s essentially Bayley’s project, with his initials hovering beneath most of the chapter headings. Bayley confesses his debt to Conran, who catapulted him from obscurity at “a provincial university” into a glamorous life of expense-account lunches, fine wine, fresh flowers, Cuban cigars – the 1980s, in short. And, like so many given a leg-up, the protege has never really forgiven his mentor.
His book makes for a strange mixture of sentimental regard and cold-eyed score-settling. On page one he calls Conran “a mean-spirited, selfish bastard”; on page three he admits that few have made such a difference to “British material life in the past 60 years”. It is rather like watching a man angrily shaking his fist while unable to get up off his knees. It certainly tells us as much about Bayley’s personality as it does his subject’s. When he points out, for instance, that Conran could only see out of one eye, following a workshop accident, he adds “but that single eye was a very, very good one”. Fair enough. So why does he feel driven to keep making ironic jibes about his “monocular” vision and his “single eye for a bargain” (where presumably he meant “singular”)? Does he fancy himself as Odysseus, righteously slaying the Cyclops whose brooding prisoner he has been for so long?
The shame of it is that Conran’s story is interesting, and would carry some authority here if Bayley could resist his retrospective one-upmanship. I was absorbed by the fledgling years, by the suburban boy (born Esher, 1931) who came to London as a furniture-maker and set up a budget restaurant near Charing Cross he called The Soup Kitchen (out went Brown Windsor, in came vichyssoise, split-pea and minestrone). I knew nothing of his life-changing “grand tour” of France in Michael Wickham’s Lagonda in the early 50s, nor that by the age of 32 he had married for the third time. And bliss must have been that dawn on Fulham Road in 1964 when he opened Habitat, a shop aimed at “young moderns with lively tastes”. I only felt the reverberations myself 10 years later, on first clapping eyes on a duvet, or “continental quilt” as we called it – who would bother with bedding ever again? Conran’s grandiose claim to have imported it and thereby changed the sex life of Britain was never verified, as Bayley remarks in an amusing aside, “though the role of the contraceptive pill and women’s liberation may have been underestimated”.
When Conran hires Bayley to oversee the Boilerhouse Project at the V&A – an exhibition space devoted to design – their court of two is established. You wonder if the king suspected what troubles his diminutive dauphin might cause him down the line. Their association thrived initially, however, and in due course the Boilerhouse gave way to the grander ambition of the Design Museum, founded in what was then the near-derelict Shad Thames. Whose idea was it? Bayley, no paragon of humility, claims it was his, and that Conran only paid for it.
Sharing an office allows him to get up close – too close – to the boss, whose flaws emerge in large size and small, like his complaining at the extravagance of Earl Grey teabags, or fretting that each time the office lift was used it cost 54p. The contradictions of his character toll with maddening repetition through the book: he was a generous host and a penny-pincher; a voluptuary and a puritan; a tyrant and a democrat; a promoter of talent who skimped on crediting his colleagues.
Conran’s restlessness for the next big thing, at the cost of looking after what he already had, was generally thought to be his downfall. His takeover of British Home Stores in the mid-1980s was a hopeless mismatch; BHS’s middle-of-the-road product didn’t chime with Conran’s gospel of good taste. His golden touch deserted him, and he lost Habitat. After another business partnership failed, he lost the restaurants, too. His differences with Bayley had to be resolved by a lawyer’s letter, and the pair didn’t speak again for years.
The repetitious narrative becomes quite a grind. A good editor could have made this book half the length and twice as entertaining. Bayley begins to wind up matters around page 263, then fills another 50 with a conclusion, two “epilogues” and the reprinted obituary. It seems he just can’t bear to let the old devil go.